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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 October 2004, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
Analysis: Obasanjo's thankless task

By Joseph Winter
BBC News Online

Nigerians see their country as Africa's superpower - the continent's most populous nation with almost 130 million inhabitants and the largest oil producer.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo
Obasanjo must try to keep his fractious nation together
But in reality, most Nigerians live in poverty and the many different ethnic groups frequently clash over resources such as land and oil.

With that superpower mentality, Nigerians have the image of being incredibly brash and loud and trying to get 129 million of them to pull in the same direction is a thankless task.

But this is President Olusegun Obasanjo's reward for winning disputed elections last year.

"We need jobs, roads, electricity, water, schools and clinics," everybody said as they queued to vote.

They were just divided on who was better placed to solve these problems.

"He has a long list of things to do. He tried in his first term, but now he must do more," says Tony Amadi, author of a book on Mr Obasanjo's People's Democratic Party, The Making of the PDP.

Nigeria's most pressing problems include:

  • Insecurity- several thousand people have been killed in ethnic and religious violence since military rule ended in 1999

  • Corruption - Nigeria is frequently ranked the world's most corrupt country by campaign group Transparency International

  • Poverty Alleviation - some 66% of the population live on less than $1 a day - a similar figure to poor African countries which are not blessed with oil

  • Economy - Nigeria is heavily dependent on exports of crude oil, while agriculture and industry are declining

    Looking 'beyond oil'

    "To leave a legacy, he must shake up the economy of the country," Mr Amadi says.

    Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo
    Nigerian oil is crucial to the world market

    Analysts agree that a priority is to build oil refineries. Nigeria exports some 1.86m barrels of crude oil a day but then imports the refined product at a far higher price.

    Exporting refined oil would earn far more foreign currency and having more domestic refineries should also end the chronic fuel shortages which plague Nigeria.

    But economists say that Nigeria must start to look beyond oil.

    "I don't know what our policy planners are doing," says Nazeef Abdullah from the Economics Department at the University of Abuja.

    "We must strengthen agriculture and industry."

    Nigeria's fault lines

    Some 65% of Nigerians live in rural areas. Many are subsistence farmers, who inhabit a different world from the gleaming new air-conditioned buildings and four-lane flyovers of Abuja.

    Population: 129m
    Income/head: $290pa
    34% illiteracy rate
    38% no access to safe water
    6.8 computers/1,000 people
    Source: World Bank
    Putting money into agriculture would be one of the best ways of raising the living standards of the very poorest Nigerians.

    Mr Abdullah says that the key to ending chronic insecurity is to adequately fund and equip the police.

    A lack of faith in the police is one reason behind the growth of ethnic militias across the country.

    Long-running arguments over the distribution of oil wealth are another factor behind ethnic unrest.

    Residents of the oil-producing Niger Delta region say their oil has built Abuja and Lagos and now they are demanding, sometimes violently, their share of the oil bounty.

    Nigerian woman carrying firewood
    Most Nigerians are poor, despite the country's oil wealth

    During his first term, Mr Obasanjo set up the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to plough some oil money into roads, schools and training for the region's inhabitants.

    In two years, the NDDC has spent some 40 billion naira ($28m) but Delta inhabitants say they have not seen where the money has gone.

    But Mr Abdullah points out that if Mr Obasanjo devotes too much attention to the mainly Christian south, where he gets most of his support, he risks being seen as a southern president.

    Most northern, Muslim-dominated areas voted for the opposition and alienating them even further would risk worsening ethnic and religious tensions.

    Clashes between Muslims and Christians have seen some of the bitterest fighting of the past five years.

    Purging 'deadwood'

    When Mr Obasanjo came to office in 1999, he promised to vigorously fight corruption, which has plagued Nigeria for so long.

    But only one minor official has been prosecuted by his anti-corruption commission.

    This is yet another priority for his second term, although getting tough would take considerable political courage as corrupt politicians, from whichever party, would no doubt seek to go down fighting.

    So is he up to the task?

    Mr Amadi says he must purge his cabinet of some of the "deadwood" in order to breathe new life into the government.

    "He wants to leave a legacy. He cannot blow it by failing this time," he says.

    His supporters say that he was just being cautious in his first term for fear of stepping on too many toes and risking a return to the dark days of military rule.

    They say he will now show his true colours and take action to improve the lives of the 129 million Nigerians.


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